In-the-moment dissociation, emotional numbing, and sexual risk: The influence of sexual trauma history, trauma symptoms, and alcohol intoxication.

This study sought to examine associations between alcohol use, prior sexual victimization, dissociation, emotional numbing, and willingness to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Summary: The purpose of this study was to examine associations from experiencing sexual trauma and acute alcohol intoxication on dissociation, emotional numbing, and sexual risk intentions during “in the moment” sexual scenarios. Participants (n=436) were young women (with an average age of 24.8) with elevated sexual risk factors such as: experiencing sexual trauma, engaging in heavy alcohol use, and/or engaging in unprotected sex within the past year were recruited for the study.  The experiment randomly assigned participants into two groups, a control (no alcohol) and an experiment group who consumed alcohol under the supervision of the researchers in a laboratory (target peak BrAC .10%).  Both groups then read a sexual scenario with the male protagonist asking at the end, “I really want to make love to you, but I’ll do whatever you want. Do we have to stop now?” Participants then tested for: dissociation and emotional numbing, unprotected sex refusal self-efficacy, and unprotected sex likelihood.  The study also found that emotional numbing was associated with lower sexual intercourse refusal and self-efficacy. The findings support the need for targeted sexual risk reduction programs that address emotional numbing during sexual intercourse and this might be especially useful for women who have a history of traumatic sexual experiences, as noted in the study.

Application/Evaluation: The study did not evaluate the effectiveness of a health program or strategy.

Limitations: The sexual scenario that was read was only of heterosexual nature and therefore these results cannot yet be applied to individuals who identify as LGBT.


Stappenbeck, C. A., George, W. H., Staples, J. M., Nguyen, H., Davis, K. C., Kaysen, D., ... & Gilmore, A. K.
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Psychology of Violence
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